“I’m a New York City session musician, so this issue of who I am is always overshadowed by the fact of who I’ve worked for.”
Carlos Alomar, the New York City guitarist who has lent his talent to records by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Carly Simon and, most famously, for the late, great David Bowie, sums up his dilemma at the outset of our conversation. You may not know his name, but you sure know his work.
In fact, it was Alomar’s riff that kick-started the writing of one of Bowie’s most famous tunes, and led to a writing credit he shares with both the Thin White Duke and John Lennon on the global hit Fame.
Here, in Alomar’s own words, is the story of the magical 40-plus years he spent as Bowie’s friend and collaborator.
I met David while we were doing tracks for Lulu at RCA Studios. Everybody thinks I met David when we started doing the Young Americans album, but it was really when he came to America to work with Lulu that I met him.
He was her producer and I was a contracted session musician. But we connected on a personal level, because he was really thin, and I said, ‘Man, you need to eat!’ I thought, ‘He’s a Brit. He’s away from home. Why don’t I just invite him to the house, and we’ll sit down and have a meal?’
We started talking and he was very curious about my group The Main Ingredient, my work with James Brown, and all the R&B acts I’d played with. In those conversations I realized the Brits had studied American soul music and American jazz. This guy knew his black people. More than most Americans, as regrettable as that might be. And I really found him so interesting. I didn’t know anything about the Spiders from Mars or any of that stuff.
You can’t imagine how curious it was for an American Puerto Rican from East Harlem to be listening to a Brit talk about the Spiders from Mars.
Equally so, I would think that me talking to him about The Main Ingredient and being in Georgia, or playing the Burning Spear club, people having to get their money for playing gigs with guns in their pockets, or James Brown’s musicians playing cards and putting their guns on the table, must have been equally amazing stories to him. So in that exchange we bonded in a different way than we would have in the studio.
I could tell when we first met that David had ideas about where he wanted to go with his music. But he didn’t say anything at first. Then I got a phone call asking if I could do some work on this album, which later I found out was Diamond Dogs. But I was making $800 a week with my group The Main Ingredient and they were nowhere near that money. I was 22 and newly married, so I couldn’t give up a sure thing for the money they were talking about. So I went back to tour with The Main Ingredient.
Time went on, and the next time David was in town we got together and really had a good time. We went to the theater. And I took him to the Apollo Theater to see Richard Pryor. Then, later on, I get another phone call. ‘Carlos, I’m going to be in Philadelphia. I got some of the guys from TSOP.’ He was so excited about tackling this whole sound and the soulfulness and everything he’d been talking about that he really wanted to do. I could hear it in his voice, because we had talked about it a lot. I knew it was one of those life dreams he wanted to fulfill. I told him, ‘I want to do this, but you’re going to have to take care of the money.’ He said he’d take care of everything. And don’t you know? Boom, done deal! So I was contracted, went out to do the Philly stuff, and that ended up being Young Americans.
When I got to Philadelphia, I called my wife Robin, who’s an amazing singer, and said, ‘come see me in Philadelphia’. She asked if she could bring Luther Vandross, because we were all really tight. I said, ‘Of course!’ Luther showed up to the session and, as always, Robin and Luther were just having a good time, ad-libbing a few things here and there. They couldn’t help themselves. That’s all we did. All we did was harmonize, all the time.
As singers, what else are you supposed to do? We were trained at the Apollo Theater. We knew how to take advantage of every opportunity. You never know when an opportunity will come up – that’s what I always tell young musicians – and sure enough David said, ‘That’s great. I want you guys to do all the background vocals.’ That’s why all of those background vocals on Young Americans had Luther’s thumbprints all over them.
I’ve heard people say that David just took my band and sang over us. But you cannot negate the fact that when it came to the vocals, he was above the background. Yes, like any good rhythm section or background vocals, we did our job just fine, but nobody was really listening to the band. Everybody was listening to the lead vocal. And this man was a crooner. This man was a singer. This man was stepping up to plate with all the soul singers that were there, and he wasn’t backing down. So nobody was paying attention to anybody else. In hindsight, even if we were good, we were supposed to be good!
David Bowie was stellar, and David Bowie was taking an epoch and branding it with his own style. That you cannot diminish.
For instance, the song Young Americans was done as a rhythm section first and then the parts came in after that. What you have to remember is each component that was layered to make that particular record was like at the top of its game. But (pianist) Mike Garson and Dave Sanborn (on Sax) played those amazing parts in one or two takes. That’s just crazy. The one thing you have to understand is that Young Americans, as well as all the other songs on that album, were done in record time. Really fast. And they were amazing performances. But David matched those performances. In fact, I might even say that he surpassed the tracks. So the tracks pushed him to greater heights, I think, because even though we came from two very different worlds, we were speaking the same musical language.
Station To Station and the Berlin Trilogy
When we went to California to do Station to Station, and we did the other albums later, the Brian Eno stuff and even beyond that, as musicians we had to listen. We were making tracks before we knew what David’s lyrics or melodies were. But there’s music in the holes. I got that from James Brown, when I was playing guitar for him. He was like, ‘Son, calm down. Why are you playing so much stuff?’ And really, when you’re playing with three guitar players, it’s easy to calm down. They’ve got it covered. Less is more.
And David liked to put things together like a jigsaw puzzle, so we couldn’t put too many notes in there. That’s why I asked him, ‘Please, no keyboard players. Keyboard players have two hands, and they’re constantly playing full chords, two or three inversions. It doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.’ So when I played with David, instead of playing one guitar that’s got five fabulous things in it, I’d play one guitar that played only one part of it. Then later I’d play the other part, so one was on the left side and one was on the right side. Then, if he wanted, I’d do another one on the upper right side, and then the upper left, so that all together in the stereo placement it might be four or five guitar parts.
It ends up so awesomely cool that you’re going, ‘Dude, that is awesome and cool!’ That’s the way we kind of worked together. Less is more in the case of trying to construct songs. Otherwise you get so heavy-handed that you can’t do arrangements like there were on Station to Station. You can’t do these songs like Wild Is the Wind or Word On A Wing. Those are somewhat classic songs for a guy like David to tackle, but he wanted to do them with a skeleton crew of musicians, so it wouldn’t be too heavy-handed. So the parts were really developed, but who shines? David. With such simple arrangements, David’s got to carry that. And he did.
Scary Monsters was a wall of sound. Talk about relentless and just aggressive! Even a Bo Diddley groove like Up the Hill Backwards, we turned the beat around. Then we flipped the beat around when the song started. And then we flipped the beat again. So all these little nuances and time changes, we did all those things, and David would love that. He would allow us to experiment. It was all about experimentation, really. Tony Visconti – and definitely Brian Eno before him – gave us carte blanche to try out whatever the newest toy was. If you brought something in, it was, ‘Let’s see what it sounds like. That sounds good on guitar. I wonder what it would sound like on a snare!’
We did stuff like singing vocals through funnels, turning the microphone around and singing into the room. I remember once Tony Visconti put us in a room with a microphone really far away. I think he attached the microphone to the ceiling or something. I could barely see the microphone it was so far away! But when I heard the finished product it was unbelievable. Again, it was about David being courageous and looking at exploration and experimentation as part of the process. That’s what was so awesomely cool about him. You don’t get that in an R&B or rock and roll session, or a session where the singer is so above everybody that it’s just ‘play the part, listen to what the producer wants, the singer is waiting for you to deliver it to him’, and the singer has nothing to do with anything.
Touring the world
Serious Moonlight was a greatest hits tour. That was during the time when David was pretty much saying, ‘Let’s just give them what they want.’ You have to understand that if you have to do a tour and you do the two hits from every album that everybody wants to hear, but you have 20 albums, when are you going to be able to do your new album material? So David was handcuffed to his own success. So he decided to do the greatest hits. To that extent, I’ve often said it was a great tour. It’s not like it was the greatest tour. It’s not. I’m just saying that when it comes to the greatest hits shos, if you saw that tour, you heard all the greatest hits. And it was wonderful.
As for the Glass Spider Tour, I have mixed feelings. I don’t have mixed feelings about the tour, though, I have mixed feelings about some people and critics and the way they think. Why couldn’t they just accept what it was? I can’t tell you how many people complained about the dancers. But David was trying something new! ‘Why did he have this? Why did he have that?’ Shut up! It’s just another expression. Why don’t you just enjoy the show and enjoy the songs? And let me tell you, when we did Young Americans, they booed the hell out of that. Why? They wanted Diamond Dogs. When we did Serious Moonlight, they booed the hell out of that because they wanted the 70s stuff.
When we did Glass Spider, they wanted Serious Moonlight. The audience was never going to catch up to the man, so my feeling was, ‘shut up and enjoy the show.’
If you give them the generic – where everything is always the same and you always please them – in the end you have no audience. An artist must always target a different audience. When we did the shows with Nine Inch Nails in the 90s, he was looking at a totally different audience. Critics don’t get that. David put his heart and soul and thought into what he did and, at the time, they just tried to tear it down.
I came in to do overdubs for the Outside stuff, after David and Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson and Sterling Campbell already had the rhythm section done. And Brian Eno was back! And you know what I liked? Brian Eno was still Brian Eno. He’s so crazy! His mindset is such that he can hear music in noise. He’s the one that made me understand the difference between soundscapes and sound design.
Think of it this way: If you listen to a waterfall, can you hear the music in the sound of the waterfall? Can you hear the rhythm, the cadence, as the water droplets hit, can you hear the notes? If you do, can you write a song with that as the background? I mean, I can look at a piece of bread and see the face of Jesus Christ in it. If I choose to! That’s the thing you get from Brian’s Oblique Strategies cards: At the Center for Performing Arts at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where I teach, on the wall are Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. And when my students get a mental block, I immediately direct them to that wall.
They do the same thing that I used to do, when I first encountered them. They say: ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ But I tell them, ‘Release your mind and try to think outside. That’s why you’re blocked.’ And that was the approach during the Outside period. Working with people like Mike Garson and Reeves Gabrels, who are able to understand that music has an emotional attachment to it, and that each chord and each note and each riff has an emotion, and that you have to pick the right chords, and the right dissonant notes, gave David and Brian Eno a gigantic sound palette to work with.
They may not have known what the hell they were going to come up with, but being challenged like that as a musician is what it is to be a part of the family which is David Bowie.
Remembering a friend
It was very difficult to deal with the passing of my best friend. But, the way that he did it was so stylish, the art part of his death. Quite honestly, I so appreciated the fact that as a man, he took care of his family, and they were not subjected to the anguish, to the ‘Hey, am I on the guest list?’ part of a funeral, with people vying for position, because I’ve been through that. People can be so insensitive and not consider what the family is going through.
David will be a memory soon enough. Some people will make him a God and put him next to Christ. Some people will make him an anti-hero. Some people will analyze and slant everything so that they know exactly what David was thinking. But really, everybody knows everything and nobody knows nothing. That’s the brilliance of David. With what he’s left us, it will keep the questions going until the end of time, because, really, nobody knew David anyway. And which David are you going to miss, anyway?
Did you know all of them? Do you know how many characters he had? Some of them were branded. Some of them became part of our consciousness the way we grew up. Some of them became the spokesmen for everything we were feeling. When he introduced them, they were us. When he killed them, we mourned them and looked forward to the next one. All of these things this man was able to do, I mean, who the hell is able to do that?
There’s a reason he will be remembered: He was the spokesman for each of the epochs that we all went through. He knew us because we grew up with him, but now so do the young kids out there. So when we talk about him, and they talk about him, we’re all talking about a totally different person.
I just celebrated my 45th wedding anniversary. There’s always been a Robin and Carlos. I was a family man, and David was not. But I always felt like David was looking for that. And when I met Iman, I knew that this woman was going to take care of David and give him everything he wanted. When he met Iman, that was it. I was like, ‘Goodbye, David. Have a good journey. I’m so happy.’
The minute he met Iman, everything was fine. I felt like I never had to see him again, because I knew somehow he was going to be just fine. And when he had Alexandria, I thought, ‘Oh my god, finally. It’s done.’ I was so happy. So David is gone, but really I’m totally happy. He found what he was always looking for and he was able to leave us with one last beautiful piece of art.
How wonderful is that?